~~~Friday, May 8, 1953~~~
DeDe sat on a log near the old church in the cemetery as the rain fell pitilessly upon her. The trees offered little protection. It was as if someone had poked a hole in the awning of green over her head. It wasn’t a cleansing rain. She knew it wouldn’t renew her. Instead she expected it to wear her down, obliterate her features, and allow her to dissolve back into the earth like warm rain on snow.
Leaning forward, she crossed her arms on her lap and hung her head low as the fat drops turned her auburn hair into a twisted brown mop. Her thick yellow housecoat, now drenched and clinging to her thin body, hung like a wet rug from her shoulders. Her pale feet, covered with mud, lined her naked flesh like wounds as she cried huge heaving sobs.
DeDe had felt certain Thirl would find him, safe. Drunk, maybe. But not dead. The devastation and grief in her husband’s eyes had told the story. Her head pounded from a river of endless tears and a restless night’s sleep.
When Thirl returned at dawn with Pastor Jessie and no one uttered a sound, DeDe instinctively knew her son was dead. Still in her robe, she bolted from the house like one who had lost their mind. Careening down the street to no place in particular, her march ended at the cemetery behind the church staring down the hole that had been dug for Savina’s funeral.
DeDe rose on shaky legs on that dreary morning. She felt Thirl standing behind her. It was only natural that he would follow her. She took a breath to gather her strength, turned around and stepped closer to her husband, narrowing the distance. Pounding her breast with her fist, emphasizing each word, she said in a voice betrayed, “God has allowed my child to be stolen from me. He has deceived me!”
Thirl caressed her face in his hands. His voice was low and hoarse. “You don’t mean that. He loves you, Deanna.” His arm steadied her, and his kiss to her forehead spoke of a love come down from God, a love she would have to trust more completely in the days ahead. Leading her to his car, he gently put her in.
The rain poured down once more, and the old Plymouth’s defroster sputtered and coughed against the fogged windshield. Just as Thirl and DeDe got back to the house, the storm subsided. Sunlight washed over the leaves of the dogwood in the yard and the tree glowed. It lit up and sparkled like tiny flashlights had been attached to every branch. Flashlights through the valley of the shadow of death.
That’s when they saw them: the neighbors, half the town scattered across the lawns. They had got in their cars and drove to Nicholas Street, or opened their front doors forgetting to close them, and walked into her yard and her neighbor’s yards, and stood there—silent. On her tiny lawn and porch, each person held some part of themselves: an arm pressed to a chest, a hand up across a forehead. Union sympathizers and men and women loyal to the company, mixed together for the first time since a gunshot maimed Thirl last September.
Edith Holcomb wore only one shoe. Tessa Butcher clutched her newborn to her chest, her other three children strung behind her as she bolted across the street. By mid-morning there were twenty more people draped across her porch, front room, and at her kitchen table—sniffling into handkerchiefs, wiping tears. Opal Hamrick’s scream broke the silence in the yard. “Goose Digg told me, but I couldn’t believe it.”
Some of the men wanted to know where the Farlow boy was hiding out. Some guessed which paths over the mountains he’d take.
“This is in God’s hands. Let the sheriff take care of this,” Thirl said in spurts, barely audible. “There’s been enough killin’. Leave it alone, boys.”
Stiff breezes blew through the windows, filling the front room in a sea of floating white chiffon—surreal and ominous. Clergy from area churches descended, while Pastor Jessie along with his wife and two daughters in tow organized food, spoke to Jugg about a double funeral, and started a prayer circle in the Nettles’ front room.
DeDe dried off and changed her clothes, but her face never dried completely. Covered with tears, it felt chapped and raw to the touch from so much wiping.
Trickles of silence filled the morning until someone caught a glimpse of Dewey Wilson running across the road in his stocking feet. His shadow flung out in front of him, painted long by the early sun, Dewey arrived at the front steps heaving for breath. Clutching a newspaper in his hands, his socks soaked with morning dew, he pressed through the crowded yard. “They’re callin’ for an end to the strike! Where’s Thirl?”
Lottie Digg, a nervous, pinched woman in a blue housedress, stood on the porch, her hands around her Bible. “Where d’you think he is, Dewey? He’s in the house with DeDe.”
Dewey bolted inside and laid the paper gently in Thirl’s arms. “This won’t ease yer pain none, but looks like the strike might be over. It’s over because this town’s finally come to its senses. This town and them vultures in Charleston. James had to die for it to happen, but it ended it.” He turned to DeDe. “I’m sorry, Deanna. I’m sorry your boy had to die for all of us.”
“Kinda makes me know how God must’ve felt.” DeDe’s voice was as dense as freshly poured cement. “But let’s remember all the families that’ve lost someone they love in the past few days. I hear the Frame family is burying Charles today. So many families are mourning in Widen.” She nodded in appreciation of Dewey’s words and hung her head.
Later, the house filled with another shift of townsfolk. Visitors brought food—dozens of casseroles, pots of beans, a ham, a few pies—gallons of tea. One preacher or another led many weeping mourners in prayer. Lottie stood to read the Psalms. Her gentle reading voice wavered only slightly. “How is this God’s will, Pastor?”
Thirl wandered to the back yard to smoke with some of the men, his face calm, almost blank. DeDe roamed the peopled rooms of her house, walking from bedroom, to porch, to kitchen, wishing they would all leave. But she didn’t have the heart to tell them to go—they were all grieving. She wanted to be alone when the undertaker brought James’ body back to the house. They would be quick about it and bury him beside Savina tomorrow.
She stopped and looked out through the rusted screens at the hazy view of the back yard filled with people. They weren’t good at much. All they knew was mining. Nobody had made it to college. But the one thing they knew how to do was pray. If the town had one talent, it was faith. They believed in the power of Jesus Christ. The same yesterday, today, and forever. They had been raised up in the shadow of this great faith, in the vast floodplain of belief. To DeDe, Jesus was more real than the people of Widen. As she walked to the school or down the path across the creek to the store, she often heard His voice. He was her comforter, her most intimate friend. As far as DeDe knew, Jesus was a Baptist. To say you didn’t believe in the existence of God was like saying you did not believe in corn flakes, or sunsets, or that the earth was round. But in the last few hours, His voice had gone silent.
DeDe crept into the bathroom to be alone. She sat on the floor. The sun strained through the window, the light bounced off the chrome handles in the tub and shimmered across the porcelain. It filled the small bathroom with an underwater radiance. It felt like somebody had taken the needle off the record and for the first time, the music she’d heard her whole life, the music that played all around her, just stopped. She’d never heard such silence. DeDe rubbed her ears for a moment and thought perhaps she’d gotten something stuck in them, some water from the rain that morning. She shook her head back and forth. But there was nothing. Just silence. And sorrow. She’d had no premonition of her son’s death. She felt betrayed.
When the last mourner had gone and James Curtis was laid out in the front room, Jugg Pyle, Widen’s undertaker, closed the casket’s lid for the night. DeDe hoped Jugg thought about the morning he and Dewey had stood in her kitchen and argued with James about shoving the strikers off the hill. She hoped they both thought about it good and hard.
“I’ll be by in the morning to get things ready for the funeral procession,” Jugg said.
Thirl nodded, shook Jugg’s hand, and closed the door behind him. Exhausted, he fell into his worn chair. His elbows angled on the arms, Thirl turned pages of his Bible. Its spine crackled under his grip. His eyes took in each paragraph, quick and hungry searching for answers.
At midnight the house was finally quiet. DeDe sat with her arms outstretched on the kitchen table, her hands folded, staring at a blank wall. The emptiness of it all caved in on her.
How can I be childless?
Childless women have more than one church dress; wear pretty shoes and sweaters with no stains. They smell of perfume, not spilled milk or fried bologna sandwiches. Their stomachs are flat and their breasts—small and manageable. They go to Summersville for permanent waves and live in tidy houses with clean walls, floors, and pretty towels and pillows they never use. But I never cared about all that. And yet, Dear God, I learned to be content with the one child you gave me. Now You have taken my only son! How do I live with the memories of him. Tell me God, how do I do that?
DeDe pulled her arms back, laid her hands in her lap and her head on the table.
Thirl heard the knock at the back door and sighed. “No more, not tonight. Not at this late hour.” But DeDe had already stood and opened it, finding Odie Ingram standing on the back porch in the dark, with his hat in his hand.